- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 28, 2004

There’s something in the water in Hollywood again. Actors are ditching movie studios for recording studios, sound stages for bandstands.

Robert Downey Jr. just released a CD of piano-and-vocal music. Jada Pinkett-Smith and her band Wicked Wisdom opened dates for Britney Spears. Juliette Lewis — she calls her punk-rock bandmates Licks — recently turned up at the smoky Black Cat in Northwest.

Nothing new, of course. Actors, even rich and famous ones, aren’t immune to the allure of rock stardom. And limited natural talent never stopped anyone in any medium.

Minnie Driver, the prim and pretty British actress from movies like “Grosse Pointe Blank” and “Good Will Hunting,” played the late show at the Birchmere Friday night to a crowded house of curious onlookers, some of whom hadn’t heard a note of her debut CD, “Everything I’ve Got in My Pocket.”

Her movie celebrity, fading somewhat in recent years, is still bright enough to fill a room.

Needless to say, it takes no small ego to attempt the crossover from film to music. It’s the same in sports; think of the hubris of two-sport athletes such as Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders. Way back in the ‘80s, actors like Bruce Willis and Don Johnson tried professional singing, to little acclaim. More recently, Russell Crowe and Billy Bob Thornton slung on guitars and took to the road.

But along with ego, it takes guts. In live rock, there’s no intermediary between performer and audience. There are usually no PR minions to pamper and protect. Heckling is a possibility. Where an unknown commodity might enjoy the benefit of doubt, the already-famous confront ill wishes and half-hidden fangs.

Miss Driver, a singer before she was an actress, seemed self-conscious, if not nervous, Friday, hiding her slender figure in a thigh-length sweater-coat and rarely wandering away from the security of her microphone stand. She’s done a good job of affecting the posture of a singer-songwriter, introducing songs with stories about muse and inspiration as a roadie strapped on her acoustic guitar, and dropping names like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Emmylou Harris.

But good taste doesn’t always translate into great music. Backed by a better-than-average five-piece band with a prominent pedal-steel guitarist, Miss Driver stayed parked in dreary mid-tempo with original, Americana-inspired songs such as “Rudy Adeline” and “Home.” Her voice is competent but hardly unique.

Bulking out her album with a few covers, she turned one of Bruce Springsteen’s most melodic hits, “Hungry Heart,” into a weep-in-your-beer ballad. Bonnie Raitt’s version of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” suited her alto well, but Miss Driver will need to do more than that to justify sharing space and attention with the likes of Tift Merritt and Kasey Chambers.

Rock isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game, where one artist’s recognition means another’s anonymity, and performers don’t deserve to be pigeonholed. But Miss Driver should be content that she has one glamorous talent. At some point, her belief that she has more starts to look like greed or boredom, or both.

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